Not that I expect this to become a regular feature–I hope it does, though my small band of followers must have noticed I am casting about a bit–but here are some brisk takes on the ten things that spun most euphoniously around my eardrums this week. Consider them strong recommendations for application to your own soul-ills, whatever they may be.
1) Tin Men: Avocodo Woo Woo (CD Baby). I was skeptical about this NOLA trio (featuring Washboard Chaz, the astonishingly ubiquitous songwriter and guitarist Alex McMurray, and sousaphonist–only in the Crescent City!–Matt Perrine) possibly being a dad-rock cum Parrothead act until I read a notably scrupulous and discerning NYC critic’s glowing notice of this, their new album. It is perfectly frothy and spirited fun, with interestingly dark (“Blood in My Eyes”) and dirty (the title song) turns. And, frankly, I love the sound they get from their three pieces.
2) Como Now: Voices of Panola County (Daptone). I am not sure how this brainstorm by “The Label Sharon Jones Built” came about, but in ’06 their agents found themselves in Como, Mississippi (home/former whereabouts) of Fred McDowell, Otha Turner, and Napolion Strickland), soliciting a capella gospel songs from black Christian locals and recording them in a local church. A moving listening experience, especially Irene Stephenson’s harrowing “If It Had Not Been for Jesus.” I am an atheist, and it transfixed me.
3) The Staples Singers: Freedom Train (Epic). Not to be confused with the relatively recent Columbia best-of of the same title, this live album was cut in a church in the group’s then-hometown of Chicago, and the location and the clarity of engineering make it one of the most powerful gospel records of the ’60s, methinks. It’s out of print; I thought I’d pulled a fast one and snagged a $4 copy on eBay, but it was pretty banged up–not so much so that I did not THOROUGHLY enjoy the almost otherworldly dynamics of the performance, particularly Pops’ always-venomous guitar and Mavis’ almost atavistic pleadings.
4) Jessie Mae Hemphill: Feelin’ Good (Shout Factory). Just a bit north of Como (also north of Winona, where Pops Staples was raised up–can you tell I’ve been to Mississippi recently?) is Senatobia, and the space between is one of the locations where North Mississippi Hill Country blues was born. It’s a different animal than Delta blues: structurally and lyrically, it’s more repetitive, but that’s not necessarily a deficit when it’s played with intensity. That’s when it becomes hypnotic–in some ways, it’s an extreme version of the John Lee Hooker sound. Hemphill was raised in this (and the related fife-and-drum) tradition; she’s not as loud nor does she project as well as R. L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, but her feminine perspective and toughness often make up for that. Try this:
5) Fu-Schnickens: “Sneakin’ Up On Ya” (from Nervous Breakdown, Jive Records). As Chicago rapper Serengeti’s Tha Grimm Teachaz project suggests, there’s one thing very special about the best rap rekkids of 1990-1995: they don’t date as badly as the prime cuts of other eras. Also, that period seemed stylistically wilder, with seemingly unforgettable (but now pretty much forgotten) MC Chip Fu providing a mind-boggling thrill every other song for this unique group. Other MCs may have been faster, but not more inventive at the same time. By the way, how many current rap GROUPS can you count?
6) D’Angelo: Live at the Jazz Cafe, London, 1996 (Virgin/Universal). This was a Japan-only release back in the day it was recorded, but, as I understand it, even then it wasn’t as expansive as this new reissue, which features ACE covers of The Ohio Players, Mandrill (“Fencewalk”!), Smokey Robinson, and Al Green along with classics from Brown Sugar–principally, a phenomenal performance of the tital track. Weirdly, the artiste often seems to recede into the performances, so he’s no more emphasized than the band or the backup ladies (led by Angie Stone), almost…a Billie Holiday thing. At first I was disappointed he didn’t project more, then I began to suspect it was part of the conception. The link below may be the whole dang thing. Keep your ladies inside the fence….
7) Duke Ellington Orchestra: “Snibor” (from the American Hustle soundtrack or, better advised, And His Mother Called Him Bill on RCA). I finally had a chance to see American Hustle this week, and Nicole and I were surprised and thrilled to hear Johnny Hodges’ alto oozing from this film-opening soundtrack cut. Also, having courted to rekkids ourselves, we were surprised and thrilled to see the protagonists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) do the same thing, to Duke and Jeep’s “Jeep’s Blues.” If you are not familiar with Hodges’ sound, it is the definition of sensuous AND sensual; if you are not familiar with Billy Strayhorn’s compositions for Duke, they are usually designed to highlight that sound. Weirdly, I can’t find a YouTube clip for this tune, but here’s an equally seductive one from the same, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED album (a tribute to the recently-passed Strayhorn):
8) The criminally underrated music of Tyler Keith. As a long-time teacher, I am closely acquainted with the dangers of certainty; in fact, I make it a point to seldom if ever come at students from that angle. Music, as esoteric as our perceptions are, is even more problematic in that regard. But I am certain of this: in a world where the rock and roll impulse is dimming, quite seriously (I think that’s a result of the natural evolution of cultural history, of young musicians, for example, casting off the influence of the blues–although donning the robes of a hipster version of James Taylor, in my view, is a misstep–and not feeling the pressures and releases of a society obsessed with sin and salvation, which I think our society still is but youth circa 2014 may not necessarily be), Tyler Keith of Oxford, Mississippi, may well be the last live-wire link to both the near-insane energy and rhythm of rockabilly and the bugged-eyed gaze into the void of Richard Hell’s strain of punk, which might really have never been fully exploited for its potential. Whew. That was a long one. But goddam I believe it, and the proof is in the best of Tyler’s work with the Neckbones, and three of his rapidly disappearing four “solo” albums (with the current Apostles and the former Preachers’ Kids), in chronologically descending order, Black Highway, Wild Emotions (a fantastic rekkid that MIGHT AS WELL NOT EXIST ON THE INTERWEB!!!), and the perfectly-titled Romeo Hood. Keith’s vocals leap out of his larynx as if propelled by a blood-surge, the music is deeply embued with tough-ass-Stones, sprung-Chuck Berry flavor and Johnny Thunders-styled explosions that are quite unpredictable (!) but perfectly timed in nature, and lyrics that are as obsessed with sin and salvation as The Killer’s favorites, though one suspects with Tyler those are purely existential notions. He can even nail a ballad, even one called “Angora,” about a certain sweater. I have never seen him live, but the intensity of his best recordings cause me to suspect that if I do and he is on, it will be hard to stay in the same room with him. The thing is, I felt this strongly when there was a decent herd he was travelling in; now, he is the burning antithesis not only of the swarms of bearded strummers that play, in critic and musician Allen Lowe’s perfect phrase, as if they have napkins folded in their laps, but also of the depleted strain of rockers who, honestly, usually protest their rockitude too much. With Keith, one feels he’s communicating his wild emotions without artistic calculation, and that’s special. I’ve gone on too long, and I can’t do him justice, but I AM RIGHT: here’s a video of one of the best tunes on his recent rekkid, the BEST rock and roll album of 2013.
9) Public Enemy: “Can’t Truss It” (live on Yo! MTV Raps). Nicole and I were fortunate enough to see the great rap orator Chuck D speak at Columbia’s Missouri Theater Tuesday night, for FREE (not nearly enough folks there, though). He is a hero of both of ours–I’ve even read his books–and we came with high expectations. He delivered grandly, though he talked mostly about critical thinking in the age of extreme technology and devolution of United States popular culture (remember when that two-word phrase was a joy? a reason to live?). I prepped for his appearance by watching this great raw video of one of PE’s greatest songs, one I used to teach in American lit, though I didn’t show it to kids this week (I was thinking about using it to promote the appearance) because I didn’t want to be met with slot mouths.
10) Tommy Boy All-Stars: “Malcolm X: No Sell Out” (Tommy Boy 12″). This, too, was part of my prep for seeing Chuck D, a man who, really, hasn’t sold out, either. I’ve read both the Haley/X “autobiography” and Manning Marable’s corrective bio, and I absolutely love the threading of perfectly chosen soundbites from Malcolm’s speeches (“I was in a house tonight that was bombed…my own. It’s not something the makes me lose confidence in what I’m doing.”) through an ace Keith LeBlanc track. In a perfect world, it woulda been a hit. Still inspiring: “I’m not the kind of person who would come here and say what you like.”